Friday, April 29, 2011

And Out: Mac in LA

This week's picture also is a take off from another shot. Last January V and I went to the Salton Sea to visit the mud. That's not really why we went, but that's what we did. Right now I'm in Los Angeles, and it is NOT muddy at all. It's hot, very hot, with no mud in sight. It's actually beautiful- I say that with a hint of embarrassment in my voice, since I have complained about LA non-stop since pretty much I was born. And Mac and I have been walking non-stop. We're staying in the same hotel as we did with V, where she took these awesome pictures:

The Big Mac Theory

Big Mac

So for this week, I took this one, inspired by her shots. He couldn't even open his eyes.

Week 17: And Out

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bill McKibben: Eaarth

Bill McKibben is The Man when it comes to the environment. Twenty years ago he wrote (and I read) "The End of Nature" which, in my opinion, was my generations' "Silent Spring." Twenty years ago McKibben demanded change, begged us to change our ways and pay attention to the damage we were doing to the environment. Now, he's written "Eaarth" about the damage that we've done to the environment. McKibben argues that the damage is undoable, and that what we can do now is to adjust our behavior to stop our planet becoming unlivable- we can learn to live on the Earth that we've created before it's too late.

At least, that's the message I got in the first thirty pages. My freshman year in college, I took an introduction to religious studies course (not an introduction to religion class) taught by a wonderful professor who also happened to be a Jungian. I remember very little about the class except the portion where my professor said that the atomic bomb was some sort of connection between everyone of her generation, a mortal fear that affected every action. There are many theories of eschatology, or the religious belief in the end of the world, but for her, she believed that underlying every fear was nuclear warfare. I believe the environment is our atomic bomb. When I read articles by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker I feel the existential dread my teacher talked about. Sometimes I can't read the articles all the way through. I have visions of our planet, blackened, cockroaches and crows surviving, and maybe laughing.

I couldn't read McKibben's book past the first thirty pages or so. The bottom line is, we can't do what we're doing. Hybrid cars aren't going to do it. Lowering carbon emissions isn't going to do it. Fuel efficiency, better light bulbs, etc isn't going to do it. Which makes me want to give up. That's obviously not going to do it. And all of this stops me from being able to read the book. Especially when McKibben gives dates like 2050, which although it sounds futuristic, is well within my lifetime. It's scary. You can read an excerpt above, or a short piece by McKibben here. You can see horrific pictures of the receding ice on the glaciers. You can listen to a wonderful TED talk by Naomi Klein. And if you come up with anything that helps with the existential grief and angst, let me know.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Year of the Bug: Racer Mac

Mac is ready for the Bring Your Own Big Wheel Race that starts this afternoon:

Week 16: Racer Mac

You may remember this picture from its predecessor, when T got all dressed up for big wheel two years ago (the wig is an addition- I wore it last year. Or maybe V wore it, I can't remember).

ready to go

And some outtakes:

Mac gets his hair done



T picks Mac up and positions him appropriately



Mac gets his hair re-done

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rich Benjamin: Searching for Whitopia

I really thought I would like this book. I tried really hard to like this book, in spite of the writing, which annoyed me almost as much as "Stiff." I gave the book an extra chance because Rich Benjamin went to Wesleyan as an under-grad. But in the end, this is not a progressive book, as much as the first two-thirds seem to go in that direction. My time reading and my energies in trying to like the book were wasted. Funemployment or not, I don't like having my time, or my hopes, wasted.

The premise of this book is more than interesting, in a world bent on ignoring racial differences while becoming more and more racially segregated, Rich Benjamin seeks out some of the whitest places in the US and lives there for months at a time. Benjamin identifies himself as a black man "bored" with the "black-white race divide" on page 11. I should have been tipped off, but I was led astray by his convincing argument that he believes in the big sort. He defines "whitopia" as a place that is "whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state. It has posted at least 6 percent population growth since 2000. The majority of that growth... is from white migrants. And a Whitopia has a je ne sais quoi- an ineffable social charisma, a pleasant look and feel." (There's that annoying writing style.) Like Bill Bishop, Benjamin understands that these "Whitopias" are attractive to people not necessarily because they're populated almost solely by people that are white, but because they represent something to their residents: like is attracting like, which in this case, is white, conservative financially and politically, and presumed safe, wholesome, clean, etc. Unlike Bishop, Benjamin doesn't seem to see the dangers in this: he hopes that we will come to live in a more desegrgated way, he acknowledges that resources are not being split equally, blah blah blah, but when it comes down to it, Benjamin fell pretty squarely in the post-racial camp that Obama queasily represents.

The "black-white divide" may be boring, but it exists. (So do brown issues, and Asian issues, and many other kind of racial tensions. Benjamin talks about immigration as an issue that gets Whitopians angry, and pays lip service to discrimination facing Asians in the last few pages of the book. He notes a feeling of guilt when he passes a trailer park full of Latinos that he never noticed.) Benjamin spends a lot of time in Whitopia, and makes friends with Whitopians. He successfully convinces me that they are good people: yes, themacinator, whitopians, rich white men, and Republicans are good people, too. These people don't like to talk about race, just like Benjamin. We are treated to a very telling event in Benjamin's life, near the end of the book. New York City is also very segregated, like the exburbs and rural areas that Benjamin profiles. (See this fascinating slideshow of the most segregated cities in the US.) In this vignette, Benjamin's cellphone is stolen by two black kids. NYPD shows up and a squad races over to the projects immediately, storms the towers, and finds the kids. Benjamin feels a twinge of guilt on learning that the kid will go to jail. Then, he proceeds to quote Obama's book (with no direct attribution or footnotes, you have to dig in the notes section to find it) about racial uplift to argue that while systemic racism is an issue, the way these kids act is an issue, too. He's black, and he didn't steal any phones! It seems like Benjamin has forgotten about his earlier description of his upbringing in a wealthy whitopia- all of a sudden poor people of color are as responsible as the structural inequities that are keeping them down for the problems that face them. The worst part is, the reason these poor deviant people have to do this is because it causes whites to flee to whitopia: Benjamin tells us his African born friends worry about their kids growing up to be "black Americans." "Our own choices and behavioral pattern as blacks," Benjamin writes, "are as important to combating poverty as dismantling structural racism." And then he gives a couple of jarring analogies: let's be real, he says: men and women have to work together to prevent pregnancy, but really, it "is more incumbent on the woman to practice safe sex." This is a societal prescription, right? And then he says, yeah, gay men should practice safe(r) sex, but since the "catcher (the receptive partner in anal sex)" should be the one to insist on a condom, since they're the more likely partner to "be harmed." Here it is: "It's importnat not to rely on a dream of what should be, but to practice common sense." We have to stop dreaming and start just, you know, being responsbile catchers.

So if white people say they're leaving because black people are criminals, well, it must be true, so the answer is instead of asking for a change in behavior, black people need to stop being criminals. Why should anyone expect men to be responsible for their own birth control? Or "pitchers" to protect their partners and themselves? That would be naive, a dream. Kind of like Benjamin's dream about how well diversity works in the military. It's great, now that it's mandatory. And religions (with the exception if Islam): we all get along now! The problem is when we start arguing about our rights the way that was "fine-tuned by women and minorities." (You know, that worked out really well, right?) Whites, Benjamin writes, argue that they have rights to live wherever they want, to pay few taxes, to have the taxes go wherever they want, etc. So we have to change the dialogue, towards practical things. Not equal rights, just a "humane, integrated, prosperous, and democratic America."

By the end of all of this, I was furious. How exaactly do we work for a "democratic America" and the "common good" without working for the rights of people of color, without ending systemic racism, without acknowedging that a squad of NYPD cops knowing that a kid who stole a cell phone *must have gone to the projects and then storming them to retrieve some minor lost property is a problem? Benjamin envisions his project as a "society [that] pays more than lip service to equal opportunity, shared responsibility, and inclusive community," but I don't see it. I hope more people will open their eyes to the damage that the 21st century version of segregation is doing to our country and political make-up, but not come to Benjamin's conclusions.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Introducing "coordinated"

I take many, many, MANY pictures that I don't post anywhere, like flickr or twitter or here. Anyone who follows any of these social media things (and, as is customary and expected, I will make the obligatory comment about how I don't expect there are too many people) should be glad that I don't post all of these pictures. But I take them, and sometimes I want to share them. Mostly, I take pictures of patterns that I see- repeated themes- memes if you will. Sofafree (I think the plural of "sofafree" is "sofafree", not "sofafrees"). Condiments. Graffiti. Signs. Things that I find beautiful or intriguing, or interesting in the way they repeat, but are different (same same, but different). So I decided to launch a blog, named after V's excellent eye for all things matching. The blog is on tumblr, and very much a work in progress, but hopefully you'll find it a useful waste of time.

Check out coordinated.

And yes, Oakland Murals hasn't been updated for awhile. I'm desperately in need of another theme that I like better, one that still showcases photos, and allows me to map things out, but it easier. Wordpress people? Anyone?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Year of the the Bug: The Bone Collector

Week 15: The Bone Collector

Almost a month ago Izaichenko posted the (much better) inspiration for this shot, and I keep finding other things to get in the way of me taking this shot. She said that someone challenged her to post a picture of her dog, Jack's, favorite toy, and that every toy is his favorite toy, but that she rounded up the toys and he picked all the bones out of the toy basket.

Well, Mac's toys are all called monkeys, and his favorite monkey, hands down, is his bone. He loves his other toys, and sometimes will pull a scrap of an old toy out of his toy basket and want to play with that. But often I'll tell him to "go get his monkey" and he'll go searching for a bone to play with. I can't really play with a bone, but he will throw it around for a minute then start chewing on it like it's some good fun. It is weird to see where he finds these bones- deep in the depths of his bed, in my bed, under the laundry, in the corner of my room, etc. sometimes they're right in the middle of the room, and I've been known to puncture my foot on the sharp edges of them. I'm never quite sure how they get to these places, but I guess Mac leaves them there, or I throw them there to get out of my bed or my way. I try to throw them out so they don't get too dry, but there are always more. When I pulled them out for this shot, i found 8 in his bed alone. His bed is NOT very big.

I thought I'd continue on the food theme here, but not gross people out as much, hopefully...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock: The Mouse that Roared

Earlier this month I went to Disneyland for the first time in my adult life. As a child, I'm sure I went close to ten times- all of my grandparents live(d) in Los Angeles and I have memories of visiting both Disneyland and Universal Studious multiple times. I also traveled to Disneyworld in Florida twice. I had pretty much forgotten Disneyland until I got there and it came back to me- I especially remembered Frontierland and Adventureland with the jungle themes and the railroad roller coaster. It was the same, just everything seemed smaller. And cleaner, creepier and more sinister. There was something slightly absurd about spending three days in a place full of children without seeing a single piece of trash on the ground. The piped in music bothered me a little, but the crowds of people around me didn't even seem to notice it. Nor did they notice that the employees at the hotel were wearing 80s style outfits in horrid beige polyester. It was like everyone stuck their heads in sand for the sake of a few days at the "happiest place on earth." Every 100 yards or so would be a cluster of empty strollers. Apparently Disneyland is so safe that parents park their strollers and their stuff and leave them for awhile. I kept expecting to see a parked baby.

stroller

But the babies were out enjoying Disneyland. And I was left with a sinking feeling that all was not right. The new edition of "The Mouse that Roared" by Henry Giroux (Grace Pollock coauthored the second edition) takes on Disney and the complacency that I was resisting. I left Disneyland reeling with logistical and critical questions, even fantasizing about writing a book about these questions. I heard a rumor that if you dial 911 from Disneyland it doesn't go to the police, but to an internal Disneyland security thing (true, according to Giroux- more later). The piped in music made me wonder- had I just gone three days hearing only songs owned by various subsidies of the Disney Corporation? How long could you stay at Disneyland without hearing the same song twice, and only hear Disney-owned songs? (You can listen to my iPod for 29.9 days without hearing the same song twice, for example.) Do employees at Disneyland get paid enough to merit such broad smiles all the time and the indignities of wearing uncomfortable, hideous outfits? Or are Disney jobs the best/only things around in a crappy economic environment? Was the water used in the light/water show I watched grey water? (OK, Giroux didn't touch that one.) I looked and looked online for a book that even came close to answering some of these questions, but it became clear to me that it is hard to get answers: Disneyland is all about fantasy and innocence, and knowing how things works would ruin the innocence. No one wants to know that there isn't really a little dude inside of the ATM or a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow (like that juxtaposition?)- they just want to enjoy getting their money, from a machine or the pot of gold. And Disney doesn't want you to know anything that might make you think yes, they may just own enough music from soundtracks to keep you listening for more than 29.9 days.

Then I found this book at the library with my new library card. Giroux would be proud of me for asking these questions. Disney, he argues, is dangerous. While claiming to be all about innocence, fun and entertainment, Disney and other culture/media/entertainment corporations are part of the "public pedagogy": "the primary sites at which education takes place for the vast majority of young people and adults." Disney is particularly influential because of its size and connections- think of it as the Phillip Morris of entertainment- and because of the way that the company successfully positions itself the wholesome family company. Purveyor of fun family entertainment like animated films, the ABC family channel, Mickey Mouse, "Hannah Montana" etc, Disney IS childhood for America and much of the world. It's just not objectionable. Many people see it as part of the fabric of America. Which makes it all the more dangerous: how can you argue with something innocuous? When Disney IS America, it's hard to notice that Disney is also shaping America (and the world) with regressive "family values" that perpetuate age-old racist ideas, classic and outdated ideas about the all-American white, "nuclear" heterosexual family, etc.

princessfamily

Remember Celebration, the Disney owned and operated town in Florida? Celebration wraps almost all of the "public pedagogy" into one place (the other place to check it out is at a theme park, like Disneyland). Cities are generally conceived as public places, as opposed to somewhere private, like a theme park, where people knowingly give up some of their personal rights. Disney believed that only "corporate-driven culture" could take care of a cities' problems, including building community and providing quality, but still public, education. Of course this artificial "community" is by nature self-selecting: people moving to Celebration seek a town that represents Disney for them and must have the money to do so; friendly and nostalgic can be read as white and upper-middle class, willing to give up personal freedom to live in a corporate-run city, away from the "implied chaos of real urban space." The Disney brand, usually just available in movies was now real enough to live in: "Innocence, playfulness, family life and refuge from both the racial and the class anarchy of the city and the alienation of the suburb were now made available as commodified products for purchase." The company advertised the Celebration school as a lure to buyers, but it was also a way to promote an education style conducive to promoting individual consumers, rather than "civic-minded youth": the school was progressive on the surface but radically conservative.

sky

Sure, everyone I know has rolled their eyes about Disney's only mildly-disguised racism in films like The Little Mermaid- bad guy is the Big Bad Black Lady- or the Lion King - bad guy is the Big Bad Black dude, hyenas cackle with Hispanic voices, or Aladdin- imperialism at it's finest, etc. But it's much, much bigger and older than that, and Giroux is convincing. Disney courted contracts with the military even *before* the military decided to use Disney to make films for WWII propaganda. (Interestingly, this came up on my twitter feed yesterday- you can see many of the disturbing propaganda cartoons for yourself here. What's more innocuous than a cartoon presenting war to the American public? "Through the use of comedy and comedic violence... Disney films are often released from the expectation that they might be attempting to do more than entertain." A more serious approach to the war might call for serious thought, maybe even questioning or protest, but a cartoon is funny, to be taken lightly. Like a war.

Giroux's Disney fits right into our current state of affairs politically and economically. I stopped in my tracks when reading the (maybe obvious) "Democracy is not capitalism." It's not, but Giroux demonstrates how Disney effectively turns children and adults into consumers, where "choice" and "identity" revolve around consumption and self-branding. "Corporations are not elected; yet, increasingly, they have the cultural and material power to shape the lives of millions of people around the world." When taken as a public pedagogy, this makes complete sense. From the crib, where babies are exposed to "Baby Einstein" (owned by Disney) and purchased by parents who are doing their best to make their children outstanding individuals, to war, Disney shapes culture and the people who influence/create it.
When democracy is equated with the marketplace, a dangerous form of depoliciticization occurs in which history and memory are erased and cultural identity becomes either inconsequential as a political determinant or simple fodder for commercialization. It has become increasingly evident that the rising tide of free markets has less to do with ensuring democracy than with spreading a reign of terror around the globe, affecting the most vulnerable populations in the cruelest of ways. The global politics of commodificiation and its underlying logic of waste and disposability do irreparable harm, especially to children, and the resulting material, psychological, and spiritual injury must be understood not merely as a political and economic issue but also as a pedagogical concern.

The United States (and other successful) democracies were not founded on neo-liberal, winner-takes-all corporate capitalism. Disney, in the way it plays/preys on innocence and infiltrates into our lives is a threat to democracy. Giroux doesn't go here, but I'm going to. Would reality TV be possible without Disney? Would governments be so easily able to move in after a natural or unnatural disaster and shock-and-awe their way into corporate takeovers? Are wars in places like Iraq an Afghanistan really about democracy or capitalism? For Giroux, Disney's coup de gras is the ability to turn us into bad citizens, unable or worse, uninterested in saying "Damn the Man" with any effectiveness. Without an ability to stand up to corporations, or the government that allows corporations the power of Disney, the public pedagogy of the Mouse has won.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vomit with a Side of Mango: Perks of Funemployment

I can't be a serious intellectual all the time while not working. I'm not getting paid, you know!

Today, Mac ate a mango pit. This was not a "bad dog" thing- this was a "bad owner" thing. I went outside to pull something out of our crawl space and left Mac unattended within striking range of the trash. As any self-respecting dog knows, the trash is a Very Important Item Worth Inspecting. Lately, Mac has been very good about staying out of the trash, at least when I'm quick about going in and out of the front door- he stands patiently waiting on the threshold of the door. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. That was not a very smart move. I had cut up Mac's raw food this morning and the package was in there. When I came back into the kitchen after approximately a minute and a half, Mac was engrossed in the trash. He looked up at me and I saw the bright orange of mango slithering into his mouth. I went over to him, opened his mouth, and attempted to pull the mango out, only to watch the mango pit slither down his throat.

I pondered the situation. Mango pits are a very good shape to slither down throats, but not a very good shape to slither through intestines and out bung holes, at least as far as my imagination wanted to take that train of thought. Maybe, I thought, it was just a piece of mango skin. I dug through the trash. Twice. It was the pit. I called the vet, who called me back and had me bring him in. They put vomit-inducing drops in his eye and we waited about 5-10 minutes and Mac started looking a little woozy. Then up it came, along with some other junk. And over Mac went, to have at that mango pit (and the other stuff) a second time. I got him in time before that could happen. I don't think I've ever been so happy to see vomit, or a mango pit. I avoided the E-Vet, blockage and potentially surgery or worse, death. It was $80, but that's ok. And the whole vet's office clapped when he puked. How often do you get a round of applause for vomit?

Today also included a come-from-behind win by the A's, a complete game win by the Phillies, (both of which I listened to in full on the radio) and some shooting. My laptop busted yesterday, so I took it in today and had a relatively painless trip to the Genius Bar today, resulting in a good-as-new computer today. Not too bad! I have also almost completed my book about Disney, which I procured from the library, with my new LIBRARY CARD! Funemployment is fun. Very fun. What is this work thing again? And why do I have to do it!?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mac and the Bean

Week three of funemployment has begun and I'm starting to think about the rest of my life. OK, not the rest of my life, but what to do next. I spent this weekend at the beach and took not-my-dog to the amazing dog beach in Carmel. Stella loved the beach!



Mac did NOT go to the dog beach, of course. He did however, go on a couple of walks with Stella (aka the Bean). If you don't know Mac, or dog language in general, this video is going to be Really Boring. Mac is "unique" around dogs. I've written a little about his skills. In this video, Mac is about as happy as he gets with other dogs. His whole body shows a Happy Dog. Stella puts him at ease, without touching him, or even really looking at him.

(sucky youtube removed my sound!)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy

If it's reasonable to say that the average American knows very little about North Korea due to the American government's lingering resentment against communism and/or dictatorships, and due to the North Korean's unwillingness to share the truth with the outside world, then it's even more reasonable to say that prior to reading "Nothing to Envy," I knew even less than the average American about North Korea. I can honestly say that I didn't know what the Korean War was all about- a major gap in my schooling. In 1948, Korea was arbitrarily divided into two countries along the 38th Parallel by post WWII countries, "giving" the upper half of the peninsula to the communists and the southern half to a democratic-backed government. Demick explains that this arbitrary line was particularly destructive to the Korean peninsula which was historically more segregated along vertical rather than horizontal lines. War ensued after communist North Korea invaded an ill-prepared South Korea. The US and the UN jumped in and drove back North Korea, but the states ended up back where they artificially started, at the 38th Parallel, still in hostilities. Technically, the Koreas are still at war. The colonialism-style division of the country has resulted in a permanent state of war whether a civil war or over a "real" border, and in the resulting tragedy of North Korea.


I had no idea how bad it is. The above picture, taken in 2010, similar to one that opens Demick's book, is a satellite shot of North and South Korea, bordered by China and Russia in the Northwest. North Korea is totally dark, with the exception of the capital city, Pyongyang. North Korea is totally dark because there is no electricity. There is nothing left- no food, no electricity, no industry, no exports, no children. There are no children because they are the first to die of starvation-related diseases as their emaciated bodies cannot fight things like typhoid and pneumonia without nutrition. South Korea, meanwhile, is a thriving part of the global economy. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, father and son dictators hold the dubious title as the longest standing dictatorship in the modern world at over five decades.

Demick figured out how to bring the truth of North Korea home to her readers, working around the difficulties of accessing North Korea and figuring out how to gain the trust of North Koreans accustomed to punishment for truth-telling. One in four people in an average North Korean neighborhood is known to be a spy, and they will encourage neighbors to talk smack about the country and the Dear Leaders just to get these nay-sayers shipped off to tortuous prisons. Demick modestly earns the trust of defectors, even ones who were previously these cadres- card-carrying believers in the regime. "Nothing to Envy" (a lyric from a North Korean song- North Koreans in fact have much to envy) tells the story of North Korea since the "Korean War" through the eyes of six North Koreans who Demick has met in South Korea. There is nothing "typical" about the defectors- what can be typical about starving and coping with brainwashing?- but the way Demick follows the lives of the six men and women tells much about North Korea and the individuals.

In this short video, you can see that only a few factories remain operating:



You can read a short version of Demick's New Yorker article (which is a short version of the book) and get a feeling for one of the characters, Mrs Song. Mrs Song believed in the regime, like many many North Koreans. Her family starved to death while she herself starved and struggled to avoid doing anything remotely illegal (like buying or trading food on the black market) while feeding her family. Still, she maintained that better times would come if she followed the teachings of her leaders. The terrible situation she lived in, she believed, must be due to the terrible Americans. Eventually, Mrs Song's daughter tricks her into defecting to South Korea.

This is not the happy ending that it sounds: Demick details the difficulty that faces North Koreans have both in getting out of North Korea and in adjusting to South Korean life. South Korea believes that it is the rightful owner of the entire Korean peninsula, so North Koreans have citizenship in North Korea, if they can manage to get there. They can't just walk into an embassy- there aren't any in North Korea- and China will also not accept North Koreans in embassies- they return North Koreans to North Korea. Basically, North Koreans have to get to South Korea on their own- a virtually impossible task on an empty stomach and in a country with worthless money. Once the defectors get to their new country, they're faced with modernity like they've never seen- cars and full time electricity and clothes and things that the majority of the world takes for granted. Forty percent of the population suffers from stunted growth, resulting in out sized heads and short stature. North Koreans even look different. They think differently, as no one is immune to the predominant cultural memes in heir country, and in North Korea, the level of indoctrination is severe.

"Nothing to Envy" is an eye-opening must read. The question left unanswered is how long can this last? How long can an entire country subsist on grass? How many more people can die in prison camps? Andrew Scobell gives some possible answers, but in a less than satisfying manner. About ten years ago, everyone was sure that North Korea would fall- things had to change. Reading "Nothing to Envy," I was sure things had to change, too, but Scobell argues that the country will change, sooner or later, but not now. What will happen to all of the people left in North Korea? What kind of intervention is warranted? With the Cold War over, does the rest of the world have a responsibility to the North Korean people, outside of keeping the world "safe" from communism? Somewhere around 40% of Koreans are in the military, which doesn't keep anyone from starving, or provide heat or electricity, i.e. keep the North Korean people safer. Now what?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Year of the Bug: Breakfast of Champions

Took some pictures of Mac eating his breakfast this morning. The official choice for the 52 Weeks project:
IMG_0860

and some others:
IMG_0926

IMG_0925

IMG_0923

IMG_0917

IMG_0896

IMG_0853

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Garry Wills: Bomb Power

A year ago I went to hear Garry Wills give his talk about "Bomb Power." Wills is, I'm thinking, one of those "public intellectuals" that we need more of. In this book, Wills traces the development the National Security State beginning with the creation of nuclear weapons, through 9/11, up till the Obama Administration. Ever since the Manhattan Project and WWII (1946), the President has had sole possession of the "football." The football, Wills explains, is "'the button' that would launch atomic weapons." Even will running for office, candidates have to prove that they are capable of holding onto this football By Themselves. Because only the president holds the football, or the power to launch nuclear war/destroy the world, the US government has suffered a serious breach: constitutional checks/balances have been broken. The president has become the "Commander in Chief," a position and title not given to him by the Constitution except when the country is nationalized. Only Congress can call militias, and the President does not have power over civilians. But with the shift in perception that occurred with the Manhattan Project, Americans gave an immense amount of power to the Chief Executive: "The President's permanent alert meant our permanent Submission"

Wills describes the creation of the bomb in a way pushed me closer to conspiracy theories than I've ever been. On the other hand, it also helped me understand the state of the country post-9/11: I'm about to say something that I never thought I would say. George W Bush and his henchman (or boss) Dick Cheney didn't create the Scary State we live in: they built on a pre-existing condition. The bomb was created under military auspices, which allowed vast amounts of money to be poured into the project with no governmental oversight- sometimes literally one person would know what money was going where. Military sites were set up to create the bomb, scientists were hired and housed, and justifications were created for what was going on. Los Alamos was such a completely sustaining entity that it was described as "a separate state, with its own airplanes and its own factories and [most importantly] its thousands of secrets."

Only later did the President know what was happening in regards to building the football. Only after that did The People know what was happening. The glue that held the bomb together was Secrecy. The military suddenly had a weapon to use against the people of its own country: State Secrets. When the president was holding a football and the power to know when to throw it, he must be practically omniscient, which required knowing all kinds of secrets. The flip side of this, the trick, was that the enemies of the state had to know about these secrets, or they were worthless. (Imagine the Cold War without the China or Russia knowing what the US was supposedly building up. Pointless.) Documents were hidden from the average Joe, and even from Congress and the Courts, but were common knowledge to enemy countries.

After WWII and the immense secrecy around the creation, housing, and using of the bomb could have gone away, or at least lessen, with some kind of global agreement about nuclear weapons. "'Conversion,'" Wills writes, "after a way never means reversion to the status quo ante. Conditions have been altered by the progress of the war. Going off of a war footing involves incorporating some of the new possibilities opened up by the war itself." But this new peace was based on weapons, and because it could be ended at any time by the Commander in Chief, the United States was now plunged into a state of perpetual emergency. In order to keep the bomb at the ready, the US had to make "friends" all over the world to have spots to launch the weapon. This has lead to the US becoming "involved" in relationships of various degrees of shadiness with governments of various degrees of acceptability over the last 50+ years. Regimes where bases were housed had to be propped up, and spy networks maintained: "support of the free world" is another way of saying "supporting the bomb."

And all of this happened as President after President veered further and further away from the Constitution and accumulated more and more power. George Bush didn't create this, he just exploited it. (I can't believe I just reiterated this.) There is nothing in the Constitution that should allow the President to carry the football (or the baseball). In fact, if he dies in some kind of nuclear attack, a line of succession was created in 1947, but it is not the one that is publicized. It's so secret, that no one knows who has the power of the bomb after the Commander in Chief. So when (then Vice President) Cheney went into hiding after 9/11 and then ordered the final plane to be shot down, he was jumping a chain of command that no one knew who might have the power to stop him (like Congress) knew about, and "the military chain of command was never considered." Instead, a civilian took charge over an act of war, very much outside of the Constitution. Because of the bomb, "An elaborately constructed set of institutions enforces the idea that anything executive agencies do is justified in the name of national security. The bomb instilled a structure of fear."

We are all living in this structure, and Wills has the balls to deconstruct it. We do not have to take our unconstitutional government for granted. On the other hand, we should not have false hope that new administrations will bring change. Obama's administration, as of the publishing of Wills' book, has continued right along the trajectory set since WWII: he has not declassified documents or closed down Guantanamo (read about Obama's promises). He has continued the use of signing statements- a way for the President to make an end-run around the fact that it is not his job to make laws. He's been in no rush to declassify anything (which may have something to do with the emergence of WikiLeaks).

I leave you with this disturbing tidbit from Wills:
The United States maintains an estimated one thousand military bases [b]in other countries[/b]. [emphasis mine] I say "estimated" because the exact number, location, and size of the bases are either partly or entirely cloaked in secrecy, among other things to protect nuclear installations. The secrecy involved is such that during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy did not even know, at first, that we had nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.